Making stress work for you
We’ve all experienced stress, and for the most part, we don’t view it positively. Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension that can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. It’s your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. Stress, in everyday terms, is a feeling you get when you’re overloaded and struggling to cope with demands. When we experience stress in short bursts, it can be positive. It can help us avoid danger or meet a tight deadline. Since stress systems can impact your body, thoughts, emotions and behavior, recognizing stress symptoms allows you to manage them. Failure to recognize stress symptoms can lead to a wide range of health problems, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
“Fight or flight”
Everyone reacts differently to stress. What I think is stressful may not be stressful to you and vice versa. Just about anything can cause stress, and for some, just thinking about demands related to finances, work, relationships and other situations can make people worry. It doesn’t have to be a real threat. It’s enough for it to be a perceived threat to cause stress. Stress is also a motivator that helps us survive. The “fight-or-flight” mechanism, for example, tells us how to respond to danger when we’re facing a threat or challenge. Our bodies mobilize resources to protect us by preparing us either to stay and fight or to get away as fast as possible.
It’s how we respond to stress
But what happens when this mechanism is triggered too easily or when we’re facing too many stressors at the same time? It can become harmful to your mental and physical health. Our bodies produce large quantities of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline that increase our heart rate, prepare our muscles for action, make us sweat and become more alert, all of which improve our ability to respond to a hazardous or challenging situation. The crucial key though is how we respond to stress, which in turn, affects our health.
If you feel like you lack the resources to cope with whatever is stressing you, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed. Stress can also arise from positive experiences, such as having a baby, moving, taking a trip, changing jobs or even getting promoted. Anything that involves a significant change, increased effort or new responsibilities represent a shift from your comfort zone into the unknown. And that can make you wonder if you can cope. But if you’re aware of how you react to stressors, you can manage it much better and learn to embrace it.
Learn to embrace stress
According to Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier if we view stress more positively. “Stress isn’t always harmful,” says McGonigal. “once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.” So how can we cultivate a mindset that embraces stress? First, when you view stress as helpful rather than harmful, you’ll be able to feel better and be more productive even when under high stress. How you think about stress affects how you respond to stress. If you view stress as harmful, you’re more likely to try to cope in ways that aren’t helpful, such as using alcohol, procrastinating, becoming depressed or even imagining worst-case scenarios. If you view stress positively, however, you’re more likely to find helpful ways to cope, like attacking the source of the stress, looking for support from friends and loved-ones or attempting to find the meaning in it.
McGonigal identifies three beliefs that go beyond viewing stress positively. 1) Look at your body’s response to stress as important energy that you can use. 2) View yourself as being able to cope with, learn from and grow from the stress you’re facing. 3) See stress as something that everyone deals with and not something unique to you. When you feel in control, stress becomes a positive challenge. Stress itself is not inherently good or bad. It’s how we respond to it that matters. So why not choose to respond to it positively? After all, without new challenges, the world would be boring, and we wouldn’t grow. Let’s look at what many call the “flip side” of stress – recovery.
A healthy balance between stress and recovery
We are complex energy systems that strive to achieve a balance between stress and recovery. Chronic stress without recovery depletes energy reserves, leads to burnout, breakdown and eventually undermines performance. Alternate periods of stress with periods of recovery, which is a natural cycle called oscillation. Get the right amount of sleep (7-8 hours/night). For optimal health, incorporate the balanced, rhythmic interactions between cycles of stress and recovery. Seek a healthy balance; too much stress without enough recovery or too much recovery without any stress is harmful. Good health requires a healthy stress/recovery balance. Acknowledge stress when you experience it and welcome it by recognizing that it’s a response to something you care about. Use the energy that stress gives you positively instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress.